When people think of Steve Martin, they usually think of the stand-up comic whose absurdist routines in the 70s have slowly morphed into somewhat more plodding and predictable big screen roles in recent years. Less known about Martin is his musical career as a composer and a gun banjo player. Even less known is his writing – screenplays, plays , nonfiction and novels, of which Shopgirl is the most well known
I’ve just read his take on the (almost) contemporary New York art scene, a novel called An Object of Beauty, which charts the rise and something (I’m not going to give it away) of art dealer Lacey Yeager, a charming and driven underling at Sotherby’s whose ambition and vision set her apart.
This is a most enjoyable and surprisingly instructive read. I can only assume that Martin has a pretty fair art collection himself, because he writes utterly convincingly about the machinations that go on in galleries, from the establishment of an artist to the establishment of a market for their art as well as giving us an insight into how all of this is funded in the first place. The material concerning the “art swap” between Russian and American dealers was fascinating, and reminded me very much of an arms deal or a prisoner exchange. Martin also manages to get inside the heads of collectors whose motivations range from the lust for visual satisfaction, to the lust for position and power. Much of the action takes place in the heady days before September 11 and the book charts the rise and fall of art as investment, just as the economy rises and falls. We also get a pretty good insight into contemporary art, and how and where it sits with the classics. The novel is peppered with colour illustrations throughout which is a good device to further draw you into the elite world that Lacey is intent on conquering.
I also like the ambiguity of the title – does it refer to the amoral Lacey, who is observed from afar by the rather gormless art critic narrator of the story Daniel, or is it the artwork itself?
Joyce Carol Oates makes a comparison to Edith Wharton’s masterful dissection of New York society in the 1870s – “I was reminded of The Age of Innocence – we gain admission to a world of glittering surfaces to which few have access”. I haven’t read Wharton, but I certainly did have the feeling while reading An Object of Beauty that I was an observer to the subtle, and not so subtle, wooing of the clients, and the artists. And that their whole world was an artificial construct that could collapse at any time.
An Object of Beauty can certainly be enjoyed as light read with an unusual setting and a good dollop of suspense – an art thriller (as opposed to a corporate thriller). It also has elements of chic lit – ambitious woman charming her way to the top. In fact however, it is a lot more than that. It is a really good primer about how the art scene works and it is an acutely observed interpretation about the ebbs and flows of power in a contemporary society. In fact, An Object of Beauty is an unusual concoction – a bit left of centre, not quite what you expect. It has a whole lot of disparate elements that make it interesting – rather like the author himself.